Once a month, the moon is round and full. These days are called full moon days, and Sri Lankans also call them poya days. This is because full moon days are of great significance to Buddhists and many important events or occurrences are associated with poya days. For instance, Vesak or the full moon of May is observed as the day of birth, enlightenment and death of the Gautama Buddha.
Of special significance to Sri Lankan Buddhists is the full moon day of June or Poson poya. On this day, many centuries ago, Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka and has been considered one of the main religions of the country. While the Dhamma and how Buddhism has impacted Sri Lanka are very interesting topics, it is important to first know how Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka.
During the period of 307BC and 267BC, the country was under the reign of King Devanampiyatissa. He was the son of King Mutasiva and ruled the country from Anuradhapura. There have been mentions of his friendship with the great Indian Emperor Asoka and it was this friendship that led to the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
Emperor Asoka sent Buddhism to Sri Lanka as a gift to the Sri Lankan king, but it could be said it was a gift to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. Emperor Asoka entrusted the delivery of this great gift to his son, Arahant Mahinda, who came to Sri Lanka with a delegation that included Arahant Ittiya, Uttiya, Sambala and Baddasala, a layman, Banduka Upasaka who had attained anagami, and was also joined by Sumana Samanera.
The king was went on hunting that day and was chasing a deer when he heard his name being called. Of course, the King was surprised when someone addressed him as Tissa. Arahant Mahinda is then said to have told the king the words below.
Samana mayan maharaja
Jambudeepan idha gata
(We are the disciples of the great teacher, Buddha, who has discovered he Noble Path for total emancipation and have come to be of assistance to you)
The king was obviously impressed and moved and thus began Sri Lanka’s transformation to a Buddhist state.
Another conversation between Arahant Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa is often considered to be one of the first IQ tests and measures the intelligence of the King.
Arahant Mahinda: O king, what kind of a tree is this?
King: Sir, it is a mango tree
Arahant Mahinda: Are there mango trees other than this tree?
King: Yes sir, there are many mango trees
Arahant Mahinda: Are there trees other than this mango tree and other mango trees?
King: Sir, there are other trees but they are not mango trees
Arahant Mahinda: O king, are there trees other than those mango trees and trees which are not mango trees?
King: Yes sir, there is one. It is none other than this mango tree
Arahant Mahinda: O King, have you any relatives?
King: Yes sir, I have many relatives
Arahant Mahinda: Have you non-relatives?
King: Yes sir, there are many people in this world who are not my relatives
Arahant Mahinda: O King are there any others other than your relatives and non-relatives?
King: Yes sir, there is one. It is myself
It is interesting to look at the impact Buddhism had on Sri Lanka and how the country’s literature, culture and arts were influenced by Buddhism. It could be said that the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka influenced Sri Lanka in a spiritual sense and a secular sense.
The order of the bikkus and bikkunis was established and the acceptance of Buddhism in Sri Lanka led to the construction of monasteries and stupas. With this came a shift from hunting to agriculture and with cultivation, large tanks were built. Stupas and tanks became one of the most important aspects of Sri Lankan construction and development.
Further, there were many social and cultural developments that were influenced or caused by the establishment of Buddhism in the island. Buddhism can be described as a guidebook, instead of a rule book. The Dhamma assists people in life and when Buddhism was embraced by Sri Lankans, the ethical philosophy molded the behavior and beliefs of people. People were more aware of their actions and were made to question if their behavior was moral and ethical. This brought about a great social change in the country.
Sri Lankans weren’t Sinhala speaking people from the very beginning. The Sinhala language has influences of Pali and this was a result of the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Buddhists sutras were in Pali and when establishing Buddhism in Sri Lanka and teaching people the Dhamma, knowledge of Pali was needed. This language from India influenced Sri Lankan language and its influence can be seen in Sinhala.
Is Poson just another holiday; a day for you to stay at home and play all day long? It isn’t and it shouldn’t be. While houses and roads are decorated for Vesak, Poson isn’t observed in a similar manner. However, people do organize dansal where food and beverages are offered to visitors for free. Dansal aren’t held for fun and dansal shouldn’t be visited for fun. The idea behind a dansal is that alms are given and alms are accepted, especially by the needy.
Visiting the temple is also important on Poson and other poya days too. You may wonder what the use is, can’t you just tell your gatha at home? Temples are however, more than places of worship. At a temple you meet people, you can speak with the monks and you can worship the Bo tree, chaitya and shrine room. However, you can also meditate as the environment in temples is calm and give you an escape from the messy and busy world we live in.
However, you shouldn’t stop there. Poson, and any other day, should be a day of loving kindness and mindfulness of one’s actions. Don’t make Buddhism an oil lamp you light only on full moon days, but make a lamp that is always lit and let it eliminate the darkness in your life.